It has been a busy week for the world oil markets, with crude (read Brent) rallying to five-month highs, a relatively swift recovery of three-quarters of the Texas refining capacity that was shuttered by Hurricane Harvey, and Venezuela thumbing its nose at US sanctions by asking its oil trading partners to switch from the greenback to the euro or other currencies. It was also a week of digesting three major monthly reports on the state of the markets, from the IEA, OPEC, and the EIA. The first two shifted to a more bullish stance on global oil consumption growth this year, while the third revised down its estimates! The decline in OPEC’s August production over July grabbed headlines, and much was made of the group’s marginally improved compliance rates, but these detract from the main story, which is that Libya and Nigeria together continue to cancel out more than half the reductions being made by their peers. OPEC is still not looking for a solution to this problem, sanguine in its outlook that it is doing enough to rebalance the markets. Is it?
Brent trekked up to a five-month high this week, and its futures curve remains firmly in backwardation. We have identified a bunch of reasons behind the strength in the North Sea benchmark, but a rebalancing market is not one of them.
Is Russia trimming crude output under the OPEC/non-OPEC supply cut agreement of last December or is it pumping even more this year? According to OPEC’s latest monthly report, Russian production in the first half of this year dwarfed the level achieved last November, which itself was a post-Soviet high. Why is OPEC not calling out Moscow on this one?
There were two diametrically opposite views this week on the prospects of global oil demand growth from leading agencies. The International Energy Agency and OPEC both raised their forecasts for annual growth in oil use in 2017 compared with their August reports, but the US Energy Information Administration revised down its estimates for the same. We would caution against extrapolating a robust summer demand season in the OECD to the rest of the year.
The OPEC/non-OPEC Ministerial Monitoring Committee due to meet on September 22 is expected to discuss the Saudi proposal of monitoring crude exports instead of simply relying on production figures. Even if the meeting doesn’t actually result in a new strategy to measure compliance — a likely outcome, given the complexities involved — it would at least serve to put the errant producers on notice.
Venezuela stopped accepting and making US dollar payments this week in favour of euros for its crude exports and refined product imports. Its considerable oil trade with the US will still be denominated in the dollar, we presume, but the move could lend support to other efforts and voices over the years, prominently from China, Russia and Iran, to move away from the greenback for pricing oil.
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A month ago, crude oil prices were riding a wave, comfortably trading in the mid-US$70/b range and trending towards the US$80 mark as the oil world fretted about the expiration of US waivers on Iranian crude exports. Talk among OPEC members ahead of the crucial June 25 meeting of OPEC and its OPEC+ allies in Vienna turned to winding down its own supply deal.
That narrative has now changed. With Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov suggesting that there was a risk that oil prices could fall as low as US$30/b and the Saudi Arabia-Russia alliance preparing for a US$40/b oil scenario, it looks more and more likely that the production deal will be extended to the end of 2019. This was already discussed in a pre-conference meeting in April where Saudi Arabia appeared to have swayed a recalcitrant Russia into provisionally extending the deal, even if Russia itself wasn’t in adherence.
That the suggestion that oil prices were heading for a drastic drop was coming from Russia is an eye-opener. The major oil producer has been dragging its feet over meeting its commitments on the current supply deal; it was seen as capitalising on Saudi Arabia and its close allies’ pullback over February and March. That Russia eventually reached adherence in May was not through intention but accident – contamination of crude at the major Druzhba pipeline which caused a high ripple effect across European refineries surrounding the Baltic. Russia also is shielded from low crude prices due its diversified economy – the Russian budget uses US$40/b oil prices as a baseline, while Saudi Arabia needs a far higher US$85/b to balance its books. It is quite evident why Saudi Arabia has already seemingly whipped OPEC into extending the production deal beyond June. Russia has been far more reserved – perhaps worried about US crude encroaching on its market share – but Energy Minister Alexander Novak and the government is now seemingly onboard.
Part of this has to do with the macroeconomic environment. With the US extending its trade fracas with China and opening up several new fronts (with Mexico, India and Turkey, even if the Mexican tariff standoff blew over), the global economy is jittery. A recession or at least, a slowdown seems likely. And when the world economy slows down, the demand for oil slows down too. With the US pumping as much oil as it can, a return to wanton production risks oil prices crashing once again as they have done twice in the last decade. All the bluster Russia can muster fades if demand collapses – which is a zero sum game that benefits no one.
Also on the menu in Vienna is the thorny issue of Iran. Besieged by American sanctions and at odds with fellow OPEC members, Iran is crucial to any decision that will be made at the bi-annual meeting. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, has stated that Iran has no intention of departing the group despite ‘being treated like an enemy (by some members)’. No names were mentioned, but the targets were evident – Iran’s bitter rival Saudi Arabia, and its sidekicks the UAE and Kuwait. Saudi King Salman bin Abulaziz has recently accused Iran of being the ‘greatest threat’ to global oil supplies after suspected Iranian-backed attacks in infrastructure in the Persian Gulf. With such tensions in the air, the Iranian issue is one that cannot be avoided in Vienna and could scupper any potential deal if politics trumps economics within the group. In the meantime, global crude prices continue to fall; OPEC and OPEC+ have to capability to change this trend, but the question is: will it happen on June 25?
Expectations at the 176th OPEC Conference
Global liquid fuels
Electricity, coal, renewables, and emissions
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. liquefaction capacity database
On May 31, 2019, Sempra Energy, the majority owner of the Cameron liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility, announced that the company had shipped its first cargo of LNG, becoming the fourth such facility in the United States to enter service since 2016. Upon completion of Phase 1 of the Cameron LNG project, U.S. baseload operational LNG-export capacity increased to about 4.8 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d).
Cameron LNG’s export facility is located in Hackberry, Louisiana, next to the company’s existing LNG-import terminal. Phase 1 of the project includes three liquefaction units—referred to as trains—that will export a projected 12 million tons per year of LNG exports, or about 1.7 Bcf/d.
Train 1 is currently producing LNG, and the first LNG shipment departed the facility aboard the ship Marvel Crane. The facility will continue to ship commissioning cargos until it receives approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to begin commercial shipments. Commissioning cargos refer to pre-commercial cargo loaded while export facility operations are still undergoing final testing and inspection. Trains 2 and 3 are expected to come online in the first and second quarters of 2020, according to Sempra Energy’s first-quarter 2019 earnings call.
Cameron LNG has regulatory approval to expand the facility through two additional phases, which involve the construction of two additional liquefaction units that would increase the facility’s LNG capacity to about 3.5 Bcf/d. These additional phases do not have final investment decisions.
Cameron LNG secured an authorization from the U.S. Department of Energy to export LNG to Free Trade Agreement (FTA) countries as well as to countries with which the United States does not have Free Trade Agreements (non-FTA countries). A considerable portion of the LNG shipments is expected to fulfill long-term contracts in Asian countries, similar to other LNG-export facilities located in the Gulf of Mexico region.
Cameron LNG will be the fourth U.S. LNG-export facility placed into service since February 2016. LNG exports rose steadily in 2016 and 2017 as liquefaction trains at the Sabine Pass LNG-export facility entered service, with additional increases through 2018 as units entered service at Cove Point LNG and Corpus Christi LNG. Monthly exports of LNG exports reached more than 4.0 Bcf/d for the first time in January 2019.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Natural Gas Monthly
Currently, two additional liquefaction facilities are being commissioned in the United States—the Elba Island LNG in Georgia and the Freeport LNG in Texas. Elba Island LNG consists of 10 modular liquefaction trains, each with a capacity of 0.03 Bcf/d. The first train at Elba Island is expected to be placed into service in mid-2019, and the remaining nine trains will be commissioned sequentially during the following months. Freeport LNG consists of three liquefaction trains with a combined baseload capacity of 2.0 Bcf/d. The first train is expected to be placed in service during the third quarter of 2019.
EIA’s database of liquefaction facilities contains a complete list and status of U.S. liquefaction facilities.